As the Director of Risk Management and Compliance at African Reinsurance Corporation, Yvonne Palm feels most successful when she is able to help someone take over a process or achieve something that they were not able to do before. “To me, this tops the measure of success as we haven’t just accomplished something, but our collective skills have been multiplied,” she declares.
Feeling Called to an Uncommon Career Path
Yvonne recalls that growing up in Botswana, if someone excelled in school everyone expected them to be a doctor or a lawyer. However, she hated the sight of blood, and while she was good at reading, she was not very keen on it. “It was mathematics and the sciences that interested me more. I knew that for my future career, I wanted to apply my skills to do something that was not very common,” she says.
Yvonne was inspired to become an actuary while in high school after her geography teacher recommended it to her. At the time, there were only two actuaries in the entire country, which intrigued her. As she furthered her studies, she realized that the blend of economics, statistics, and current affairs required for a career as an actuary interested her, so she committed to it as she knew it was a career she could excel at.
Before Africa Re, Yvonne worked in various traditional actuarial capacities in organizations in the USA and the UK. In her most recent role, she served as the Lead Corporate Actuary at Travelers in London, overseeing reserving, technical provisions, business planning, and reporting of results to regulators and management. She also worked in various reputable international organizations such as Ernst & Young, Markel, and Chubb.
“I think that other than making it through the actuarial exams to become a Fellow, one of my most notable achievements was being elected on to the Board of the Casualty Actuarial Society, a global actuarial organization in the USA, while I was based in Africa,” Yvonne reflects, noting that it is usually difficult for people based outside of North America to be elected to the Board.
As the first person based in Africa to achieve such a feat, she feels honored that her peers thought she brought something significant to the table and saw fit to elect her. “I’m hoping this also inspires other African actuaries to pursue their dreams and aim for top positions, even if no one else similar to them has achieved that position previously,” she affirms.
A Passion for Lifelong, Continuous Learning
Yvonne’s role and responsibilities at work include monitoring all aspects of the enterprise risk management and compliance programs within the corporation across Africa and the Middle East. She spends a lot of time discussing risk and compliance issues with all departments and regions within the organization. As her department touches every area of the organization, she finds it important to keep her ear to the ground and understand the issues at hand.
“I am then able to utilize my actuarial and risk-related skills to help solve the business problems that come up. More specifically, on the risk management side, I have been working with my team to try and add many more quantitative measures to the way we measure our risks so we can monitor progress and incorporate proactive and enhanced responses in a more systematic way,” she explains.
Yvonne also tends to be a part of many project teams within the corporation – from building projects right to projects that deal with accounting and regulatory standards, such as IFRS17. She finds that it keeps her on her toes as she has to become familiar with things that she may not have been exposed to previously, such as the ins and outs of construction projects.
“However, I love having to adjust and learn to apply my skills to solve any business problem that comes my way. Life-long, continuous learning is something that was instilled in me as I progressed through my actuarial exams and within my profession. It is something I intend to continue with,” she insists.
Yvonne observes that the software industry, as well as the way they utilize software within her industry, has indeed changed significantly. When she first started working, she often had to type out data triangles manually from faxed documents into spreadsheets so that the data could be utilized for analyses.
“Today, I cannot imagine anyone having to do this. Our focus is now more on how to build larger and faster models to effectively utilize the plethora of data that we have at our fingertips. Having the cloud and more efficient software has helped us move far. For example, the running of complex capital models has reduced from multi-day and overnight runs to a matter of a few hours or even minutes! Technological development has been game-changing within my industry,” she declares.
Paying it Forward to Support the Next Generation of Leaders
Yvonne notes that, as a woman leader, her journey has not necessarily been an easy one, but she has found that having strong networks of other women in leadership, as well as men who are willing and able to support women and be their allies, has helped her tremendously.
“I don’t believe you can grow in your professional life on your own. I have tried to lay a firm foundation by ensuring that I know my field of work well and execute effectively in everything I do; but what has truly helped me along, supporting me and encouraging me, is the networks that I have built and the people I have been able to learn from. I only hope that I can be equally as inspiring to the next generation of women and show them that it is possible to succeed,” she maintains.
Yvonne contributes by trying to pay it forward, and being both a strong leader and a pillar of support for up-and-coming actuaries and risk professionals, especially women, as she has observed that there are very few women in her sphere. She thinks that representation matters significantly, and having a black African woman in leadership in actuarial and other STEM fields will inspire other women like her to join these fields where they are underrepresented, and help boost their ambitions to rise to the top.
“I have a passion to develop actuarial and risk-related skills within Africa, which is one of the reasons I joined Africa Re, a company whose mission very much aligns with my personal passion. I would like to be able to continue to work with my company in a greater capacity to take larger strides towards accomplishing this mission,” she states.
As a member of the Board of Directors for the Casualty Actuarial Society, Yvonne hopes to work more with this organization to see how far they can go with developing some of the technical insurance, risk management, and actuarial skills within the continent. “I would also consider joining other companies as a Board member if this will also help towards the development of such skills and industries within the continent,” she maintains.
The Key Leadership Skills that Great Leaders Possess
Yvonne notes that a great leader must be able to juggle and exhibit many different skills if they want to inspire and get the best out of their team. She lists a few key leadership skills, such as vision, critical thinking, tenacity, empathy, authenticity, open-mindedness, and loyalty.
She explains that to inspire others to follow them, a leader must have a clear vision for where they would like to go. “It is this vision and the belief in the vision that will inspire your team to roll up their sleeves and follow you, instead of you trying to push them to do what you want them to do.”
Along with this, a great leader needs to be a critical thinker who can weigh the plusses and minuses of different options quickly, while also having the tenacity to stick through with difficult or unpopular decisions, and inspiring people to follow them down that path and see these decisions through.
Yvonne believes that a great leader should possess skills that will facilitate interpersonal communication to get the best out of their teams. A good leader should be able to empathize with their team and know the point of view they are coming from. “At the same time, being authentic and humble in your interactions and admitting when you don’t know the answer – while encouraging your teams to find solutions – is key to building trust and bringing the best out of them.”
Another critical leadership skill that Yvonne recommends is being open-minded to the fact that there are different ways to get to the same destination. “Your team may have better ideas than you, and you must give them a chance to show you!” she declares.
A great leader should also be there for their team when things don’t go well, and help them correct their paths – this is also key to getting your teams to stand by you. “When your team knows you have their back and are carrying them along, they will be more willing to put in extra effort to get things done, even if it seems like you are trying to get them to squeeze water out of a stone!” she states.
Yvonne likes to encourage a culture of honesty and openness within her spheres of influence. She tailors her leadership style to each individual to help them apply themselves as best as possible to deliver better results each time. She believes that if you give your team a chance to blossom and apply themselves, they will do much more than you can ask, think, or imagine, and you will be able to achieve much more together as a team.
“I believe that when you find problems, you should also find solutions.” – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Employees Work Harder If They Know They Are Appreciated
Yvonne’s employees know that she expects any work that leaves their division to be of high quality. “I want my team to be known for executing and delivering quality work and trying their best to solve the problem at hand; once they take on this vision, everything else tends to fall in place,” she observes.
She also tries to stay true to the leadership qualities mentioned above, in particular, having empathy and letting her team know that she cares for them as individuals. “They are not robots, and everyone has unique issues they face; I let them know that I have their back, and we will indeed accomplish the task at hand,” she clarifies.
Yvonne firmly believes that employees work harder if they know they are appreciated, no matter the job they do. She tries to let them know this by always making herself available to them to answer their questions. “Each of my team members has a weekly spot in my diary which they may use to address any issues they have, whether that be a topic they don’t understand or brainstorming a personal issue that is affecting their work,” she explains.
“Success isn’t about how much money you make. It’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” – Michelle Obama
To Innovate, Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Yvonne is also a firm believer that, as a leader, you don’t know everything; you need to lean on your teams and their knowledge to come up with new ideas on how to do things and execute effectively on projects.
“That is how we innovate. I encourage an open culture where people are free to suggest their ideas. There is an understanding that each idea may not always be followed through (that is, don’t be afraid to fail), the best ideas will win, but all ideas can be built upon. My team understands that we will make our best effort to execute these ideas within the confines of the corporation and its culture, as well as our team’s resources,” she elaborates.
Yvonne encourages her team to suggest any ideas that they believe are worthwhile. It gets them thinking about their day-to-day roles and gives them the genuine feeling that they are being carried along. This encourages them to care about the team’s output because if they care, they will do the right thing within the confines of their job roles and capabilities. She also notes that, as a leader, she often has to juggle priorities and make tough choices daily.
“I set my priorities based on corporate priorities, the vision I have for the team, my own team’s priorities, as well as my own team’s capabilities. If I need to ask for an extension or get help on a project because I can see the targets set for my team are much too high, I don’t hesitate to do this. I would rather go and ask for help and more time to get something right than submit something that is half-baked and that I know I cannot, with confidence, sign my name to. This also requires a lot of planning; I find that you can avoid a lot of messy situations with good planning and anticipation of deadlines, rather than trying to manage the deadlines as you come up against them and find you are not prepared to meet them,” she clarifies.
Have The Courage to Choose Something Better
Yvonne notes that there are times in your career when you may have to make the tough decision to leave your company and make that move to progress. “I was once working in a job where I was not appreciated, no matter what I did, and that affected my psyche. I was lucky to have another colleague who understood what I was going through and we leaned on each other for support. It wasn’t until an old boss nudged me and told me that it was apparent that there were other places out there where I could thrive better than I was currently, that I decided to take the leap of faith. It turned out to be a great decision!” she recalls.
Yvonne found a new team where her contributions were appreciated. As a team, they were able to appreciate each other for the differences they brought and leverage them to get the best out of their collective effort. It was a place where she was able to thrive, so making that move was one of the best decisions that she made in her career. “Sometimes the situation you are in is just not one for you. You must be able to recognize when this is the case and have the courage to leap to something better that will help you blossom,” she advises.
Taking Time Off to Rest and Recharge Is Essential
As an avid hiker, Yvonne loves to travel the world, see new countries and experience new cultures. She has traveled to 66 countries so far and the list is always growing. “For me, having that time off to rest and recharge is essential. I love to pick places that are off the grid a bit so that I am not distracted by floods of emails and work that I may feel the need to attend to right away,” she shares.
While her team knows how to contact her in an emergency, so far, they seem to understand when and when not to try and reach out. Yvonne works hard when she is available to work, and plays hard too. She loves to go outdoors and gets refreshed by hiking in nature when it is time to rest. “I try to get out and walk some miles a few days a week as well. It is important to set your boundaries if you would like to remain healthy, both physically and mentally,” she observes.
Quoting a saying that she often reminds herself of when she faces challenges, Yvonne notes, “Life is like riding a bicycle, you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling. If it means I have to pedal very slowly, I will do it. The key thing is that I just don’t stop pedaling. That, and leaning on my close networks, is how I stay motivated.”
“Life is like riding a bicycle, you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.” – Claude Pepper
Find Good Mentors to Support You on Your Leadership Journey
Yvonne shares some words of wisdom to inspire and motivate aspiring women leaders as follows:
“Don’t give up, no matter what challenges you face. I used to think I was doing things wrong, but it was inspirational quotes from female leaders such as Michelle Obama, and the inspirational stories of leaders such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala that give me the will to keep going. A key awakening for me was when I realized that no matter what you do, someone will complain about certain traits that you have as a woman, even if they are good leadership traits.
It was after I found a way to truly introspect, know who I am as a leader, and be able to filter out the noise when it came to feedback and challenges that fell into this category, that I was truly able to blossom as a leader. Also, keep in mind that it is impossible to go on your leadership journey alone. So, find people who understand your position and lean on them for support, mentorship, and sponsorship.”
“I decided that I wasn’t bossy, I was strong. I wasn’t loud, I was a young woman with something important to say.” – Michelle Obama